It is human nature to study a thing primarily as though it’s a discrete entity, separate from other factors and influences. For example, an analysis of American colonial history often ignores the impact of events taking place elsewhere in the world such as the English Civil War that broke out barely twenty years after the first boatload of Puritans landed at Plymouth Rock.
So it often is with Christians and a study of Bible prophecy. While Christianity is the largest religion on earth, with an estimated 2.2 billion believers, it represents less than a third of the world’s population. Muslims number about 1.6 billion, or 22 percent of the global population. (Jews, surprisingly, don’t even make the top ten, placing eleventh with about fourteen million adherents, only 0.22 percent of the world’s population.)[i]
It must also be noted that Protestant Christians, especially those holding a premillennial, pre-Tribulation view of end-times prophecy, are a minority within world Christianity. Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians, who are generally amillennial (rejecting the belief that Jesus will have a literal thousand-year reign on earth), comprise 62 percent of global Christianity.[ii] Among Protestants, it is safe to say that most of the mainline denominations (Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican, Presbyterian, etc.) place little emphasis on teaching prophecy.
Biblical illiteracy in America, even among Christians who describe themselves as “born again,” is rampant. The Barna Group’s 2009 study on the state of American Christianity revealed that only 9 percent of American adults possess a biblical worldview,[iii] and among “born-again” believers, only 19 percent were found to hold a biblical worldview.[iv] It is no surprise, then, that Christians, especially in the West, know little about Bible prophecy, and what we do know may have been absorbed from movies or popular fiction rather than from the Bible itself.
And therein lies the seed of a great deception, possibly the greatest in all of history—one that may lead millions to destruction and lures an untold number of Jews and Christians into welcoming the Antichrist when he appears on the world stage.
A 2013 survey that was widely reported by conservative media trumpeted the surprising conclusion that 2 in 5 American adults claim to believe that they’re living in the end times prophesied by the Bible.[v] Among evangelicals, the proportion rose to 3 out of 4.
But the survey did not ask the key question: What do the end times look like to people who, judging by the Barna Group’s research, have a shaky grasp on Christian doctrine at best? Many, if not most, who say they believe they’re living in the last days don’t actually know what the Bible says about them.
Here is another point to consider: Even those of us who have devoted time to the study of Bible prophecy (and please note that this author is by no means a scholar) usually don’t bother to consider what people of other faiths believe about eschatology. Christians aren’t the only global religion with prophecies about the end of the world as we know it. Actions are driven by beliefs, and history is filled with irrational actions motivated by faith in things that proved false.[vi]
It is in this light that we briefly consider what the world’s other monotheistic religions believe about the end of history. Their responses to events that fulfill their faiths’ eschatological expectations appear to be revealed to us in the end-times prophecies of the Bible.
A disclaimer first: Islam and Judaism are not equal monolithic religions. Both faiths are subdivided into sects that hold differing and often contradictory beliefs. Thus the summary below should not be taken as authoritative or exhaustive. Not everyone who identifies as a Jew or Muslim will necessarily hold all (or any) of these beliefs.
This analysis is intended only to demonstrate that the Enemy—the principalities, powers, thrones, and dominions referred to by the apostle Paul—has set in motion a brilliant end-times deception that may convince many that the Antichrist is actually the Messiah.
Muslim eschatology is dominated by two prophesied figures. The Mahdi, or “rightly-guided one,” is similar to the Jewish understanding of the mashiach,[vii] a mortal man who plays a central role in defeating the enemies of Allah. The Dajjal is the Islamic Antichrist figure. Interestingly, neither the Mahdi or the Dajjal are mentioned in the Quran. All that is known about them comes from the Hadith, collections of reports that purportedly preserve the sayings of Muhammad verbatim.
Unlike the Quran, which was compiled under the authority of the early Islamic authorities in Medina, the Hadith were not collected until the eighth and ninth centuries, and the sayings were not evaluated by a central authority. Islamic scholars in the centuries since have divided the Hadith into sahih (authentic), hasan (strong), and da’if (weak), although there is no universal agreement on which are which. Sunni and Shia Muslims refer to different collections of Hadith, and there is a small group of Quranists who reject its authority altogether.
This makes it as difficult to compile an authoritative list of what Muslims believe about the end times as it is to identify a universal set of Christian eschatological beliefs—in other words, impossible. There are fundamental differences that have divided Sunnis and Shias for more than thirteen hundred years and they naturally carry over into eschatology. For example: Sunnis believe the Mahdi has yet to appear on earth, while Shias believe they will see his return. Those views are as mutually exclusive as those that distinguish the Christian Messiah from the Jewish mashiach.
Two other figures play key roles in Islamic eschatology: Isa, the Muslim conception of Jesus, who will appear in the last hour to kill the Dajjal (or help the Mahdi do so), and the Sufyani, a Muslim tyrant (or national hero, depending on the sect) who will emerge in Damascus before the Mahdi’s arrival.
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Isa’s return, oddly enough, is prophesied in the Quran,[viii] although Muslims believe Isa/Jesus did not die on the cross but was taken up into heaven by Allah. Isa, in spite of his miraculous birth (Muslims do believe Mary was a virgin) and rescue from the cross, will die like any other mortal man some years after his return.
The Sufyani, like the Mahdi and the Dajjal, is an apocryphal figure mentioned only in the hadith. This character illustrates the depth of the hostility between Sunnis and Shias. His name stems from his ancestor, one Abu Sufyan, the leader of Muhammad’s tribe who initially persecuted the self-proclaimed prophet and his followers. Although he and his family eventually converted to the faith, Abu Sufyan’s son fought Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali, for control of the new Islamic empire, and eventually became the caliph.[ix]
Ali’s supporters, the “Shi‘at Ali” (“partisans of Ali” and later just “the Shi‘a”), formed their own sect that persists to this day. The Shia soon began teaching that the Mahdi would return someday to defeat the champion of the Sunnis, the Sufyani, in the Levant. Many Shias today believe the Sufyani’s emergence is imminent, which they believe is a bad thing because of his opposition to the Mahdi.
Conversely, some Sunnis see the Sufyani as a sort of national hero, especially in Syria, the historic homeland of the Sufyani’s ancestors.[x] And unlike Shia prophecies that portray Syria in a negative light because it will be the birthplace of the Sufyani, it holds a place of honor for Sunnis as the site of the decisive future victory over the forces of Rome.
This adds more fuel to an already incendiary situation. Some 670 million Muslims, including an overwhelming majority in the Middle East and western Asia, expect to see the Mahdi in their lifetimes, which roughly means sometime during the first half of the twenty-first.[xi] But Sunnis and Shias, like Jews and (most) Christians, are looking for different men to fulfill their prophecies.
It seems a safe guess that the typical Muslim is not much better informed about his or her faith than the typical Christian. So while large majorities in nations like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan expect the Mahdi’s return in the near future,[xii] their expectations—which are already built on teachings drawn from sometimes contradictory Hadith of dubious authenticity—may be shaped to fit current events by charismatic and persuasive imams or political leaders.
In very broad strokes, then, we can establish some common expectations:
- The “last hour” will be preceded by corruption, widespread unbelief, oppression of Muslims, declining standards of living, wars and anarchy, sexual immorality, the emergence of false prophets, and an increase in technology.
- The armies of Rome will land at al-A’maq, a valley near Antakya (Antioch) in southern Turkey, or in Dabiq, a rural village in Syria between Aleppo and the border with Turkey. The Muslims triumph over the “Romans” and go on to conquer Constantinople (Istanbul). This belief is central to the apocalyptic theology of the Islamic State (ISIS), which as mentioned earlier in this book, named its official magazine Dabiq to emphasize its significance.
- The Dajjal emerges from the East, possibly from Khorasan (the traditional name of a region in eastern Iran and western Afghanistan), and remains on earth, deceiving and oppressing people for forty days, forty months, or forty years.
- Isa (Jesus) descends from heaven at Damascus and either helps the Mahdi kill the Dajjal or kills the Dajjal himself.
- The Sufyani fields an army to fight the Mahdi, but the earth swallows the Sufyani and his followers before they reach the Mahdi.
- When the fighting is over, Isa and the Mahdi will lead prayers at Jerusalem. Al-Mahdi will try to defer to Isa, but Isa will insist on remaining subordinate to the Mahdi. The two will rule over the earth for forty years before dying of old age.
Obviously, there is far more to Islamic eschatology than just the above. However, since much of it is not universally believed or deals with supernatural events that take place after the defeat of al-Dajjal, they do not concern us here.
And then there are multiple variations on the main theme that are unique to either Sunnis or Shias. Some Sunnis believe the Dajjal will come from Iran; some Shias believe the civil war in Syria is a sign that the end times are upon us. Both sects declare that the other will mistake the Dajjal for the Mahdi, and news accounts of the apocalyptic beliefs of young Muslim men fighting each other in the Syrian civil war convey the sense that Sunnis and Shias are slaughtering each other for the privilege of going toe-to-toe with the Dajjal.
It must be noted that while Mecca and Medina are the holiest sites in Islam, future events in Islamic prophecy are focused on the Levant. Damascus and Jerusalem are far more important in Islamic eschatology than the cities that gave birth to Islam. Perhaps not coincidentally, Jerusalem, site of the resurrection of Jesus, and Damascus, where Paul converted, played key roles in the establishment of Christianity.[xiii]
Because of the Islamic State’s surprising resilience, we must consider their interpretation of Islamic eschatology when trying to project into the future. There are important questions about some of the events on the group’s prophetic timeline. In particular, when ISIS refers to Rome, we must ask: which one?
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When Muhammad reportedly prophesied the future battle at al-A’maq or Dabiq, Rome wasn’t Rome anymore. The Western Roman Empire ended in AD 476, 150 years before Muhammad’s rise to power. In Muhammad’s day, the remnant of the Roman Empire was centered on the Byzantine capital, Constantinople (modern Istanbul). Nor did Rome wield the religious influence most modern readers assume the Vatican possessed until at least a couple hundred years after the time of Muhammad.
So who or what is meant by “Rome”? Even the rank-and-file Islamic State faithful don’t agree, variously identifying Rome as the Roman Catholic Church, “Christendom” (Western Europe), the United States, or Turkey (which is ironic, since an uncomfortable amount of evidence suggests that the governments of Turkey, the United States, and other Western allies actively assisted the Islamic State up to and even beyond the point that it declared the caliphate).[xiv][xv][xvi]
More important, as noted above, is the fundamental disagreement between Sunnis and Shias over the identity of the Mahdi. Sunnis, who comprise an estimated 87–90 percent of Muslims worldwide,[xvii] have traditionally derived religious authority from the caliphate. The first caliph was appointed by the companions of Muhammad at his death as the prophet left no male heir.
Shias, however, follow the bloodline of Muhammad, believing that his true heir descends from the prophet’s cousin and son by marriage, Ali. To Shias, and more specifically Twelver Shias, the Mahdi is the Twelfth Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, who went into hiding in AD 873 at the age of four.
Or so it is claimed. His father, Hasan al-Askari, lived his life under house arrest and was poisoned at the age of twenty-eight, probably by the Abbasid caliph, dying without a male heir. That might have been the end of Shia Islam, except that one Abu Sahl al-Nawbakhti of Baghdad saved the day by claiming that al-Askari did, in fact, have a son who had gone into ghaybah—“occultation” or “hiding.” Like King Arthur, who will return at the hour of England’s greatest need, the Twelfth Imam will emerge from occultation at the end of the age to usher in an age of peace and justice, and to establish Islam as the global religion.
In short, the Mahdi’s appearance will either be the arrival of a “rightly guided” Sunni Muslim leader, a mortal man who will rule for a time and then die, or the return of a Shiite Imam who has been supernaturally preserved for over eleven hundred years.
This is a key distinction: For Shias, the Mahdi must reappear as one specific person. In Sunni theology, “The mantle of the Mahdi can be appropriated, in the right context, by a charismatic leader megalomaniacal enough to believe Allah is directing him to wage divinely-guided jihad.”[xviii] Unlike Sunnis, Shias do not believe that human action can affect the timing of the last hour’s arrival.
Furthermore, there are reasons to believe that Shias, especially in Iran, are not necessarily eager for the Mahdi’s return. The ayatollahs, who rule about 40 percent of the world’s Shia Muslims, would find the return of al-Mahdi an obstacle to maintaining their positions of authority—and with them, their comfortable lives of nice cars, attractive wives, and big houses.
One Israeli scholar puts it bluntly:
Shi`ism in general, and post-revolutionary Iranian Shi`ism in particular, is not only not messianic or apocalyptic in character, but is in fact the fiercest enemy of messianism to be found anywhere in the Muslim world or Islamic history.[xix]
That may be a surprise to American readers who have listened to conservative media commentators claim for years that Twelver Shias wanted nothing more than to trigger the Apocalypse and expedite al-Mahdi’s return by destroying Israel. But beyond the threat that messianism poses to lives and lifestyles of Iran’s theocratic elites, since the truly faithful believe it wouldn’t change the timetable at all and that the Mahdi and Isa/Jesus are prophesied to lead the faithful in prayer at Jerusalem, it would seem the ayatollahs have a compelling reason not to turn the Temple Mount into a radioactive crater for the Twelfth Imam.
That said, it is still a safe bet that at least one and perhaps several military battles for Zion are in the future. The Temple Mount is the prize, and its significance is recognized by Muslim, Jew, and Christian. And Sunni Muslims, whose long history of radical Mahdist movements continues in the Islamic State, generally believe the last hour can be jump-started. In that light, some of the more extreme actions of the Islamic State are understandable (but nevertheless unconscionable) as attempts to draw “Rome” into that fateful showdown at Dabiq.
In broad terms, the eschatological beliefs of Jews and Christians are more similar to those of Shia Muslims than those of Sunnis, at least insofar as the influence humans can have on the timeline of the last days. And since Christians and Jews share the prophecies of the Hebrew prophets, it isn’t surprising that there are some similarities in their eschatological teachings. However, it is in the differences, and the failure of many professing Christians to understand the basics of Bible prophecy, that danger lies.
As with Christian interpretations of end-times prophecy, Israel will face an existential threat from a coalition of enemies invading from the north—the prophecy of the war of Gog and Magog recorded in Ezekiel chapters 38 and 39. Typically, Christians understand that this war will end when God intervenes and supernaturally destroys the invading army with “torrential rains and hailstones, fire and sulfur” (Ezekiel 38:22, ESV). The Messiah plays no overt role in this battle, and Christians debate whether they will still be on earth during this war, as some believe the conflict takes place after a Rapture of the Church.
However, Jews believe the mashiach does participate.
UP NEXT: Why Many Christians, Muslims, and Jews Will Accept Antichrist (Last Roman Emperor) as Messiah (PART TWO)
[i]“Major Religions of the World Ranked by Number of Adherents,” adherents.com, http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents.html, retrieved 2/28/16.
[ii]“Global Christianity—A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population,” Pew Research Center, December 19, 2011, http://www.pewforum.org/2011/12/19/global-christianity-exec/.
[iii] For the purposes of the survey, a biblical worldview was defined as accepting all of the following points of doctrine: Believing that absolute moral truth exists; the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches; Satan is considered to be a real being or force, not merely symbolic; a person cannot earn his or her way into heaven by trying to be good or do good works; Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and God is the all-knowing, all-powerful Creator of the world who still rules the universe today.
[iv] “Barna Survey Examines Changes in Worldview among Christians over the Past 13 Years,” Barna Group, March 9, 2009, https://barna.org/barna-update/transformation/252-barna-survey-examines-changes-in-worldview-among-christians-over-the-past-13-years#.VtMY3hj5hE4.
[v] Jeff Schapiro, “Poll: 4 in 10 Americans Believe They Are Living in the End Times,” The Christian Post, September 12, 2013, http://www.christianpost.com/news/poll-4-in-10-americans-believe-they-are-living-in-the-end-times-104423/.
[vi] For example, the mass suicide of the Heaven’s Gate cult in 1997, which was motivated by their belief that they’d be joining an alien spacecraft flying behind Comet Hale-Bopp.
[vii] I will use mashiach when referring to the Jewish “anointed one” to distinguish him from the Christian understanding of the Messiah.
[viii] Qur’an 43:61. “‘And indeed, Jesus will be [a sign for] knowledge of the Hour, so be not in doubt of it, and follow Me. This is a straight path.’”
[ix] William McCants, “The Foreign Policy Essay: The Sectarian Apocalypse,” October 26, 2014, http://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2014/10/26-foreign-policy-essay-sectarian-apocalypse-mccants.
[xi] Dr. Timothy R. Furnish, “Mahdism (and Sectarianism and Superstition) Rises in the Islamic World,” History News Network, August 13, 2012, http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/147714#sthash.uCCjkns0.dpuf.
[xiii] Interestingly, al-A’maq, the valley where the Islamic State believes it may confront the forces of Rome, lies next to Antioch, the modern Antakya, the city where Christians were first called by that name in the first century. The valley also lies next to Mount Aqraa, formerly Mount Zaphon, which was known to the ancient world as the site of the palace of Ba’al. I do not believe this is a coincidence, but that theory will be explored more fully elsewhere.
[xiv] “Newly-Declassified U.S. Government Documents: The West Supported the Creation of ISIS,” Washington’s Blog, May 24, 2015, http://www.washingtonsblog.com/2015/05/newly-declassified-u-s-government-documents-the-west-supported-the-creation-of-isis.html.
[xv] Tyler Durden, “Secret Pentagon Report Reveals US ‘Created’ISIS As A ‘Tool’ To Overthrow Syria’s President Assad,” ZeroHedge, May 24, 2015, http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2015-05-23/secret-pentagon-report-reveals-us-created-isis-tool-overthrow-syrias-president-assad.
[xvi]Nafeez Ahmed, “Pentagon Report Predicted West’s Support for Islamist Rebels Would Create ISIS,” Medium, May 22, 2015, https://medium.com/insurge-intelligence/secret-pentagon-report-reveals-west-saw-isis-as-strategic-asset-b99ad7a29092#.xk748ht7r.
[xvii] “Mapping the Global Muslim Population,” Pew Research Center, October 7, 2009, http://www.pewforum.org/2009/10/07/mapping-the-global-muslim-population/.
[xviii] Dr. Timothy R. Furnish, “A Western View on Iran’s WMD Goal: Nuclearizing the Eschaton, or Pre-Stocking the Mahdi’s Arsenal?,” Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis, January 2011, p. 4.
[xix] Ze’ev Maghen, “Occultation in Perpetuum: Shi`ite Messianism and the Policies of the Islamic Republic,” Middle East Journal, Vol. 62, No. 2 (Spring 2008), p. 237 (cited by Furnish).